The last day

The limits to growth

Imagine there is a lake in a distant forest. On the surface, a plant is growing. Its leaves suffocate all life below. The plant has already been there for 1,000 days, and it doubles in size every day. So, here is a question. If the lake is already covered half by the plant, how many days are left to save the lake? The correct answer is one day. Behold the power of exponential growth.

In one day, the size of the plant doubles, so the lake will be fully covered the next day. It does not matter how long the plant has been there already. Exponential growth stops once there is no more room for expansion. As soon as the lake is fully covered, life in the lake ends. And if the plant depends on that life, it will die too.

The lake represents the Earth, the plant represents humanity, and the leaves are people like you and me. No more room for growth means that mass starvation is not far away. As of 1971, humans use more of the Earth’s resources than nature can replenish. Currently, we use two times as much. By 2050, humanity will need three Earths. Make no mistake. We live on the proverbial last day.

The end may come suddenly. Most people do not see it coming, while others believe it is unavoidable. They are preparing for the worst. In 1972, a group of scientists in the Club of Rome predicted the end of civilisation when natural resources would run out shortly after the year 2000.1 Their predictions did not come true because new technologies allowed us to extract more raw materials from the planet.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend
The end

– The Doors, The End

End time prophets have been consistently wrong so far. That does not mean that the day of reckoning is not at hand. The laws of nature usually are not kind to those who ignore them. The measures currently entertained likely are vastly insufficient. Technological innovation alone could fail to solve the issues we face. And so, a lifestyle change, most notably for rich people, seems imperative. Possible solutions are politically incorrect, so liberal democracy may not deliver them. The reasons could be:

  • We are inclined to value the present more than the future. What will happen later on does not affect us now. That may be why voluntary pension schemes often fail.
  • It is a collective action problem. It is pointless to restrain yourself when others do not. For instance, if I stop using my car but others do not, it will have no effect.
  • The future is uncertain. Predictions often do not come true, and most disasters we prepare for never materialise, so people hope rather than act.

We do not like to hear about inconvenient truths. Our way of living is unsustainable. Climate change gets a lot of attention, but we hear less about cutting down forests to produce biofuels. And completely switching to renewables may be so costly that reducing energy consumption will be cheaper. That is hard to sell to the public as it may entail a decline in the standard of living for many people. That standard of living probably is still better than most people had for most of history. Mahatma Gandhi once said that the world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.

What does it mean to live sustainably? A ‘worst-case’ scenario might be living like the Amish. How bad is that? Amish are free to leave their community. Most of them decide to stay. It appears that their living standard is not a burden to them. Adapting likely is the most painful part. Once you become accustomed to a new way of living, it becomes normal for you, and you will probably be as happy or as miserable as you were before.

The exponential growth of human activities may soon hit the limits of this planet. Waiting for more evidence to arrive does not seem a good idea. You have conclusive proof when it happens. But that is too late. And so, our lives may depend on taking appropriate action now. The limits of the planet do not care about you or your feelings. You will have to cope with them. Societal collapses often coincided with die-offs in which up to 90% of the people perished. The measures we can take affect the following areas:

  • food and water
  • energy
  • pollution and destruction of ecosystems
  • population

Food and water

The impact of climate change on future harvests is unknown. Climate change may cause harvest failures and famine. Crops could fail in unison so the global food supply may become unstable. Currently, stored food stocks can feed humanity for a few months. Famine is just around the corner. It seems wise to heed the advice Joseph once gave the Pharaoh, which is storing food to cope with poor harvests.

The need to increase food supplies in the face of diminishing harvests may require a critical look at our diets. The food for animals we eat takes arable land that could feed humans. It often takes three to seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat. Meat production causes animal suffering and destroys ecosystems. And meat production is a source of greenhouse gases.

Nearly one billion people lack access to clean, affordable water within half an hour of their homes. Every year 300,000 children under five die of diarrhoea, dirty water and poor sanitation are often to blame. By 2025, half the world’s population could live in areas with water shortages. Causes are irrigation for agriculture, climate change, and water-intensive production processes like producing clothes.2

Energy

There are two diverging predictions regarding the future of renewable energy. The first scenario is that renewable energy will become cheaper than fossil fuels and replace them.3 The second scenario is that this will not happen because solar and wind cannot provide a stable energy source. Our civilisation depends on a constant and reliable supply of energy. Hence, backup power from other energy sources must remain available.4 Renewable energy may become cheap, but stabilising delivery may be prohibitively expensive. And so, the most challenging part is not getting to 50% renewables but 100%. Perhaps it is possible but that is not certain.

Denmark is successfully switching to renewable energy, most notably wind. Denmark’s government is committed to renewable energy. And the Danes are willing to pay up for electricity. Electricity in Denmark costs twice as much as in France. In 2020, 32% of Denmark’s energy consumption came from renewable sources. Denmark’s ambition is to get to 100% by 2050. That points at the central issues: there must be political will to make it happen, but there may be limits to what is possible. If electricity becomes ten times as expensive, lifestyles will have to change.

Renewable energy sources will not meet the projected global energy consumption in the coming decades. They may cover the rise in demand, but not more than that. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates a near 50% increase in world energy use by 2050.5 The EIA further predicts that the use of fossil fuels will not go down. That may necessitate additional measures like:
• curbing non-essential energy consumption;
• using nuclear power (the projected damage caused by climate change dramatically exceeds that of nuclear accidents and waste);
• using natural gas and compensating for the carbon emissions.

Many people feel entitled to their lifestyles, so curbing non-essential energy consumption is a politically incorrect idea. It may be needed. High energy prices affect poor people the most. Ending non-essential energy consumption means that the rich make the greatest sacrifice by saving fuel for essential purposes so that energy prices may not rise as much. It may also affect many middle-class people, for instance, when air travel stops or car use becomes restricted.

Nuclear power can provide a reliable source of energy. There is a lot of emotion surrounding this energy source. Nuclear accidents were rare and did not kill many people, but many think nuclear power is evil, perhaps because radiation is invisible and has a long-term irreversible impact. In the Netherlands, national route 666 leads to Borssele. It is the location of the only remaining Dutch nuclear power plant. I once came on this route after leaving a village named Kwadendamme (translation: Evildam). The second power plant in Dodewaard (translation: Death Holm) has been closed. The former municipality of Dodewaard had been 66.5 square kilometres, close enough to 66.6 to be noteworthy. Nuclear power may be a ‘deal with the devil’ that we wish to avoid, but burning fossil fuels most likely is far more problematic.

Nuclear reactors may become safer and cheaper to operate, but the problem of nuclear waste remains. This waste will remain dangerous for over 10,000 years. Nuclear fusion can be safer than fission, the type of energy currently used. If something goes wrong, the process dies out. The nuclear waste from fusion is more manageable and will probably be safe to handle after a few hundred years. Energy from nuclear fusion may be available within a few decades, but that is far from certain. During wars, armies may bomb power plants, so nuclear power can never be safe without lasting world peace.

Pollution and destruction of ecosystems

Several environmental disasters are happening at the same time. Many species of plants and animals have become extinct or are on the brink of extinction because humans destroy their habitat. On average, there has been a 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in the last 40 years.6 There is hardly any wildlife left.

To put it further into perspective, the seven billion humans on this planet together weigh 300 million tonnes. All the domesticated animals, such as pigs, cows, horses and sheep, together weigh 700 million tonnes. By comparison, all the remaining large wildlife on planet Earth, such as lions, elephants, whales, crocodiles and penguins, together weigh less than 100 million tonnes.7

Why produce garbage

Economists argue that economic growth is the way to a cleaner environment. Wealthy people usually are willing to pay more for a clean environment. It can be true as long as the benefits of economic growth exceed the cost of cleaning up. Only, costs tend to escalate once you become more ambitious. Joseph Tainter claims that removing all organic waste from a sugar processing plant costs 100 times more than removing 30%.8 Many pollution-related issues are of a similar nature. In such cases, doing less damage is cheaper than repairing it. And so, the way to a cleaner environment could be producing less.

Population

A mother in waiting once asked the Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers what she could do to raise her child as environmentally friendly as possible. Dekkers then said that nothing harms the environment more than having a child. ‘Cutting down one hundred hectares of tropical rainforest is not nearly as bad,’ he added. Limiting the number of children people get, for instance, to one child per couple, can be a good idea. Population control becomes even more urgent when humans live indefinitely.

Apart from people wanting to have children, poor people seek economic security. Their retirement plan is to have children who can care for them when they are old. Even though they do not use a lot of resources, poor people often have many children. If their standard of living rises, that will place an even greater burden on the planet. The limits of our planet make population control imperative. In the long term, it will have the greatest impact.

The nature of collapse

The breakdown of societies and civilisations is a poorly investigated domain considering the likelihood and implications of such an event. Most people think that life after the collapse is a war of all against all where only the strong survive. There is a breakdown of authority and central control, law and order disappear, local self-sufficiency replaces trade and specialisation, and populations decline. No longer can people rely on defence, maintenance of public works, or delivery of goods.

In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter investigates some known cases from the past and available hypotheses about the causes. He then tries to come up with a general theory of societal collapse. Tainter defines collapse as a rapid loss of social and political complexity.8 It affects both the public and the private sphere. Existing explanations mention external causes like resource depletion, (environmental) catastrophes, changing circumstances, or internal causes like conflict and mismanagement.

Human societies are problem-solving organisations. Societies become more complex when they add institutions to address new problems as they emerge. Institutions have benefits, most notably just after their introduction, but they can outlive their usefulness and become a liability. Each additional institution comes at a price for the population. According to Tainter, the law of diminishing marginal returns applies to investments in societal complexity. At some point, the costs of additional complexity start to exceed the benefits. Hence, a reduction in complexity can be a boon to the population at large.8

Maintaining complexity requires surpluses. In agrarian societies, most people were subsistence farmers. Their produce was scarcely enough to feed themselves and their families. Few surpluses were traded in markets or appropriated by governments. Since the Industrial Revolution, surpluses rose dramatically, and societies became more complex than ever before. In modern societies, only a few per cent of the population are farmers. Most people nowadays work in the service sector and do not produce things. An abundant supply of energy provided by fossil fuels made it possible.

When societies experience a stress surge, for instance, resource depletion, a catastrophe, or mismanagement, then the available surpluses drop, and the cost of maintaining complexity can become prohibitive. The current world economy needs growth or continuously increasing surpluses. When energy and resource supplies do not enlarge, surpluses do not increment, and stress may emerge. Products may become unavailable, and public services may halt. People may see their prospects dim and grow angry.

Competing societies cannot collapse voluntarily as a competitor could take over. In the past, competing polities continued to invest in their militaries, regardless of the cost to their populations. Societies do not have to break down under those conditions. Europe has seen centuries of intense military competition and warfare without polities collapsing. If competing states did break down, they usually did so in unison when their dwindling populations were exhausted and starving.8

A recurring pattern is a frantic increase in coping activities on the eve of a breakdown. These activities can be public display to legitimise the leadership, for instance, building monuments, adding hierarchical levels to manage dwindling resources, building a military to raid neighbours, and cultivating barren lands to scrape out a bit of additional agricultural output. Cleaning up the environment after polluting it may also fall into this category. During collapses, leaders appear inept, even when they make the best out of the circumstances.

Aborting the exponential growth of our economic activities and scaling them down to a sustainable level could be in the best interest of humanity. It might entail a reduction in complexity, in other words, simpler lifestyles for many people. A managed complexity reduction could be better than a collapse, as collapse can come with famines and resource wars. Nevertheless, that could still cause emotional stress and dislocations in the economy. You only have to think of what abandoning air travel will do for the freedom of movement and jobs in airline-related industries.

Tainter sees collapse as a consequence of diminishing marginal returns on investments.8 If additional investments yield nothing, there appears to be no point in making them. Negative interest rates can mitigate the breakdown and help to turn it into a more graceful contraction. For instance, a holding fee on currency could make the financial system robust and capable of withstanding a financial shock resulting from an economic decline caused by halting non-essential activities.

Few people are willing to give up their lifestyles. Countries do not stop competing and will not end economic growth out of their own. If we do not alter our course ourselves, then the limits of this planet may do it for us, resulting in unprecedented suffering, wars, and starvation. Voluntary change requires an authority all people in the world accept. Only a possible owner of this universe has this kind of authority. If the end of times ever comes, it may be now. We can only imagine how life in Paradise is going to be.

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
Waterfalls
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?

[…]

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
You got it, you got it
I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
You got it, you got it
We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
You got it, you got it
This was a discount store,
Now it’s turned into a cornfield
You’ve got it, you’ve got it
Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

– Talking Heads, Nothing But Flowers

Featured image: Judgement Day. Royal Museum Of Fine Arts of Belgium. Rama (2008). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Other images: Why produce garbage when it is thrown away all the same. Loesje. Loesje.org.

1. The Limits to Growth. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III (1972). Potomac Associates – Universe Books.
2. Are we running out of water? Fiona Harvey (2018). The Guardian. [link]
3. The Sky’s the Limit: Solar and wind energy potential is 100 times as much as global energy demand. Carbon Tracker Initiative (2021). [link]
4. The “New Energy Economy”: An Exercise in Magical Thinking. Mark P. Mills (2019). Manhattan Institute. [link]
5. EIA projects a nearly 50% increase in world energy use by 2050, led by growth in renewables. US Energy Information Administration (2021). [link]
6. Living Planet Report. World Wildlife Fund (2018). [link]
7. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
8. The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter (1988), Cambridge University Press.

The end is near

For tonight
God is a DJ

– Faithless, God is a DJ

From time to time, a self-declared prophet proclaimed the end of the world, gathered some followers, and then they went to a mountain and waited for the end to come. If they did not commit suicide, they lived to see another day. Others watched out for signs. Whenever a river turned red, for instance, when a factory spills chemicals, they said, ‘Look what is written in the Book of Revelation. This is the end.’ And then the Sun went under and rose again. They did not observe the more obvious omens:

  • The exponential growth of human impact on the planet is about to end. That might be the end of our way of living.
  • As long as nation-states and tribes exist, there will not be enduring peace, and weapons of mass destruction can end us all.
  • Eternal life may soon be possible, and humans may soon enhance themselves with technology. That could be the end of humanity.
  • The world has become interconnected to the point that ideas can unite us all. That might be the end of history.
  • And finally, we may discover that we live inside a virtual reality created by an advanced humanoid civilisation for entertainment.

Signs may have popped up in places where people did not look. Some Christians think there are messages from Satan hidden in pop music you can learn by playing tracks in reverse. So, where would God put Her secret messages to create the maximum possible surprise? Of course, pop music! And to add something more to the level of surprise, you can hear them by playing them in the usual fashion. Who would have thought that? It requires imagination to think of something like that. And to make the surprise even juicier, God put a message in a song suspected of containing satanic communication. As always with discussing signs: you have to go along with the idea. And here is the idea: God sent Her prospective husband a message via pop music to prepare for the end times.

An incident at secondary school relates to this. I had the poorest grades in my class for explaining literature. It was about guessing the hidden intentions of authors. I considered guessing other people’s motives and uncovering them in texts a waste of time. Authors often marvelled at what literature experts found out about their motives from the books they had written. And I was not good at this type of speculation. Before the final exam, I prayed to God that the grade would not be too bad. Then, my result on the final exam turned out to be the best of everyone, only matched by a girl who flaunted her interest in art and literature. The book The Virtual Universe discusses this incident in more detail.

From Almelo via Enschede to Eurovision

Ilse DeLange’s fourth studio album The Great Escape could hold an order from God for Her husband to prepare himself for his task. Remarkable coincidences surround DeLange and the album contains some remarkable lyrics. DeLange was born on 13 May 1977 in Almelo, a town in the region of Twente in the Netherlands. Almelo was also the home town of Herman Finkers, a comedian who wrote Kroamschudd’n in Mariaparochie, a short animation picture on the possibility of Christ being born in Twente, the region where I grew up.

wurst

On 13 May 2000, the 23rd birthday of Ilse Delange, a fireworks plant in Enschede, also in Twente, exploded, killing 23 people. And it was exactly 11 years after I moved to Enschede to live on the campus of the university where I came to know the Lady. The recurring of 23 is a bit odd too. On the day of the accident, the Eurovision Song Contest was held. When the seriousness of the situation became clear in the course of the evening, the Dutch broadcast of the Eurovision Song Contest was discontinued.

The night before the fireworks accident, my wife dreamt about a large fire. On the day itself, she visited a friend who had a baby. Some other friends of hers were also present. One of them came from Enschede. Just after Ingrid had told her friend from Enschede about the dream, this friend received a text message asking her whether she was all right. It was only then that they learned about the accident.

In 2014, Ilse Delange herself took part in the Eurovision Song Contest together with Waylon as The Common Linnets. They came in second after Conchita Wurst, a transgender Jesus look-alike. That is remarkable because of the possible sex change Christians applied to God and the hatred against LGBTQ people that exists amongst the most conservative adherents of the Religion of Love.

The Great Escape was also the name of the fourth album made by the English rock band Blur. It was released on 11 September 1994, a remarkable date considering the coincidences surrounding the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. The total length of this album is 56 minutes and 56 seconds. Compressing these numbers results in 11:11 as 5 + 6 = 11. And, 56 + 56 = 112, while 112 is the European emergency telephone number. The lead song, The Great Escape, lasts 4:01 minutes while I moved to Enschede to live in room 112 of dormitory 401.

The Great Escape

Viewing the lyrics as a medium used by God to ask Her prospective husband to prepare for his task brings up some remarkable finds. That was not the intention of DeLange. Unwittingly, she became a medium for this communication. Mediums make misses alongside accurate guesses. The supposed messages thus blended into the lyrics, while other parts of the songs are not part of the message. The book The Virtual Universe explains how mediums can make uncannily accurate guesses together with many misses.

In the first song, Reach For the Light, She says that She remembers and that he does not. Supposedly, the reincarnation of Adam does not remember being Adam:

I know my name but who’s the same
When everything you knew is lost
I’m filled with hope that echoes loud
Inside a forgotten mind.

– Ilse DeLange, Reach For The Light

In the second song, The Lonely One, she appears to tell him that She used Her powers to make his life disagreeable. It is not hard to guess who can order the sun not to shine.

I told the sun, not to shine and stay away
I told the lake, to go dry and wash away

Asked the sky, to fall down on you
Asked the night, to be solid proof.

– Ilse DeLange, The Lonely One

What She is saying about Herself could even make Louis XIV blush, if he was still alive:

I am the only princess, I’m indestructible
I am winged victory, I am so breakable
I am the distant planet, I am the golden sun.

– Ilse DeLange, The Lonely One

The Great Escape is the song that gives the album its name. In the autumn some force pulls him into the shadow world.

The leaves will fall again
The wind comes crawling in
The rain with all its sin
Captures me again

Questions to embrace
Feelings that you’ll face
In this holy land
A desert made of quicksand
Streets that lead you there
Places of your fear
Some force pulls you in
The shadow world.

– Ilse DeLange, The Great Escape

There is not much left to guess here if you go along with the idea of it being a message. The shadow world is a holy land in disguise and She comes from heaven.

By the time I made the great escape
I was falling, falling falling from heaven.

– Ilse DeLange, The Great Escape

Then comes the song Carry Hope. God appears to tell him that he should prepare himself.

The power is in your hands
The dust will fall to sand
Got to make this land your own

And faith calls out your name.

– Ilse DeLange, Carry Hope

And even Louis XIV in all his vanity would not have dared to say:

When I let go of hope
There’s no one left to follow
There’s nothing but the power to believe in me

– Ilse DeLange, Carry Hope

The song Was It Love suggests that She did it for love. Perhaps Jesus fell for that too.

Is it possible to see with every moment over
What the reason was for me
Was it love, was it love

– Ilse DeLange, Was It Love

The song also suggests that God doesn’t care much for religious people:

And they’re locked inside belief
But they’re not inside of me

– Ilse DeLange, Was It Love

Other songs don’t seem to be part of the scheme. That can be expected. DeLange came from Twente just like me. And the lady who appeared to be God was born in Enschede.

Slippery slope

There are a few other lyrics that might contain messages but these could easily be attributed to chance if there is chance. This is a slippery slope. There may be no chance so it might be justifiable to go down this path, at least for a while. The following lines come from Queen’s song Gimme The Prize.

Here I am, I’m the master of your destiny,
I am the one the only one, I am the god of kingdom come

– Queen, Gimme The Prize

The God of kingdom come could be a Queen, a queer joke. The song Joga from Björk is about accidents, coincidences and connecting the dots. It could be about a love affair. But who can make these accidents happen and make someone else see the connection?

All these accidents
That happen
Follow the dot
Coincidence
Makes sense
Only with you

State of emergency
How beautiful to be
State of emergency
Is where I want to be

– Björk, Joga

Stairway To Heaven of Led Zeppelin allegedly contains satanic messages that you can hear by playing the song in reverse. The artists claim this is just a coincidence.1 What has escaped the attention so far is that playing the song in a regular way might reveal a message that is hidden in plain sight.

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold

– Led Zeppelin, Stairway To Heaven

The lady we all know could be God. The song is named Stairway To Heaven after all. The album, Led Zeppelin IV, which includes Stairway To Heaven, also includes the song Going To California. It has the following lines.

To find a queen without a king,
They say she plays guitar and cries and sings… la la la
Ride a white mare in the footsteps of dawn
Trying to find a woman who’s never, never, never been born

– Led Zeppelin, Going To California

The woman who was never been born could be Eve. The Infant King is a song of The Nits from their album Adieu Sweet Bahnhof. It could refer to a king who is going to meet his bride. In a sense he might be an infant compared to his bride.

Wheels on steel go rumbling through the night
“Away, away” they seem to say
I tip-toe tip-toe through the sleeping train
An infant king who meets his bride

Someone said the other day
“The border’s closed, there’s no way in or out
Pack your bags, make up your mind
You can leave your memories behind”

Someone said the other day
“The world is cracking up, it’s plain to see”
Overheard two people say
“Some gold works wonders when you want to go”

– The Nits, The Infant King

Woman Cactus is on the same album. It may describe a psychotic love affair of an indecent nature:

This is not comme il faut
It’s no respectable affair
I know I lost my head
I’m burning bridges everywhere

My heart, my head, my brains
My senses don’t make sense at all
The bar sign prints your name
Over and over on the wall

And I can’t take it anymore
Chime little bells, big bells
I try to touch a woman cactus
Chime little bells, big bells
I try to touch a woman cactus

The needles and pins might refer to pain or voodoo:

I know it hurts to touch a woman
With those needles and pins
I know it hurts to touch a woman
With those needles and pins

And then there is the painting She made on the wall:

Nothing like cubism
To bring about a woman’s shape

– The Nits, Woman Cactus

There may be more to say, but it is a slippery slope, so at some point, the explanations become far-fetched and, if you go further, perhaps even delusional. I do not intend to go down that path as I try to stick with the plausible.

Latest revision: 12 April 2022

1. The 10 Wildest Led Zeppelin Legends, Fact-Checked. Rolling Stone (2012). [link]